As we’ve moved through the resurgence of interest in the amorphously defined post-punk years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it’s been both interesting and repetitive to see the standard police line-up of influences rounded up time and again. “Number 2, step forward… okay, is this the band you nicked your clipped, terse guitars from?” “No, officer, that’s the Cure; we’re pretty sure it was Gang of Four over there… Number, err, 4, actually.”
And the reasons for this seem worth considering, if you’re someone given to drawing loose parallels—younger generations discovering what are now considered classic sounds; comparative socio-economics mixing with global politics; the confluence of punk and dance music yielding a synthesis in the ‘70s being in some respects repeated in the ‘90s under the idioms of indie rock and electronic music. But all of this basically complicates the obvious, less high-minded position: the music of the period was just plain good. Even when they seem dated, those bands that survived to become hallmarks made music that was, if not legendary, then certainly definitive, and it’s little wonder that young upstart bands would look back to the oxymoronic “underground icons” for reference.
Of course, same as it ever was, there were plenty of bands who didn’t become legendary and whose music only survives in hyper-completists’ collections. And plenty of the time, these bands were no less emblematic of the period. So it’s somewhat interesting, in light of the post-punk revival, to go back to original source material that is little-known today and compare notes. It is even this moment of post-punk fascination that has made this possible by rekindling an awareness of and respect for the pioneering label work of Stiff Records.
Proudly hailing itself as “the original indie label,” Stiff Records is probably best known for introducing the world to Shane McGowan, Madness, and Ian Dury. But the label also promoted a whole slew of artists whose music reached well outside the confines of the punk world, and this diversity created a well-promoted, multi-genre roster that helped expand the middle ground for a number of acts that might otherwise have been pigeon-holed out of the spotlight. Among these is Dirty Looks, one of the rare US acts to be signed to Stiff during its heyday (and not to be confused with the C-list hair metal band of the same name during the later ‘80s).
A power-pop trio from Staten Island, New York, while Dirty Looks didn’t share identical sensibilities with their post-punk contemporaries in the UK, they certainly found their success within the heart of the New York punk scene, playing early shows at CBGBs and Hurrah. Discovered and signed to Stiff Records in 1979, the band is an almost stereotypical flash-in-the-pan story of the era. Their self-titled debut did well, selling over 100,000 copies on the strength of minor hit single “Let Go” and buoyed by Stiff promotions. By 1980, the band was touring the world as part of the Son of Stiff Tour. Then the usual label woes began. Without the band’s knowledge, the follow-up album, Turn It Up, was reworked by the parent label, Epic, who remained ultimately dissatisfied with the product and released the watered-down results only in the UK. Without a follow-up at home, the band floundered, and after a third recording attempt failed, this time with Island Records, the band eventually called it quits in 1984.
Now, both Dirty Looks albums have been made newly available as a part of this year’s “classics” reissue series, in which a revived Stiff Records has repackaged some of its original second-tier artists—including Tracey Ullman, Wreckless Eric, Any Trouble, and Rachel Sweet. Considering it an essential reissue would be a stretch to all but the most torch-bearing fans. However, both discs by Dirty Looks have their moments, proving to be decent enough albums in their own right. And, as stated, they put a period that’s become fashionably hip into some slightly different perspective.
Dirty Looks first hit shelves in 1979, a year that holds a significance in post-punk history that rivals 1977 in punk’s own annals. But, moreover, while associations with that scene and Stiff’s own artists is undeniable, it also stands out as a time when power pop had its own thriving moment. Cheap Trick were at their pinnacle, Big Star had left its major mark, and the Cars and Blondie were reshaping the pop charts. And the influence of these acts on pop rock was working in the same period as the artsy turn away from punk, though such influences are rarely cited by today’s retro set. But Dirty Looks shows how bands often straddled that line. If you want to listen for post-punk strains in the album, they’re here—the guitars are choppy and tense, the vocals sometimes affectedly nervous. But you’ll also hear plenty of big pop hook catchiness and showy rock and roll elements in that same mix. Marco Sin’s chugging bass was definitely the anchor of the band, but Patrick Barnes’s guitar makes some deftly sloppy runs and never shies from taking a solo or grinding out some power chords, while singing in a crossroads somewhere between Ric Ocasek and Joe Jackson. This is rudimentary power pop trio work straight from the garage, but it’s carried off with a fair bit of charm.
Like the best power pop classics, Dirty Looks mainly concerned themselves with love songs, and most of them broken-hearted. Sometimes, as on “You Can’t Love Me”, this is simplistic to the point of banality (presaging the million-time-repeated chorus that marked so much of the ‘80s), but on tracks like “Lie to Me” they come close to the territory Elvis Costello was mining for himself. Their big breakthrough single “Let Go” really manages the balance perfectly, though. The combination of low punk rumble and punchy shout-outs fits perfectly into the smoothed out power-pop choruses, finding a basic rock and roll middle ground. “12 O’Clock High” comes across as that perfect defiant-but-anonymous New Wave song from a teenage rebellion movie, and it’s interesting that looking back on things, this is where the band was both most interesting and most in tune with their peers, focusing more on the music, lifestyle, and cynical introspection than bad relationships, and the formula works again on the rockabilly strut of “Drop That Tan”. On the other hand, the “you just don’t get our scene” snottiness of “You’re Too Old” feels dated in an almost silly way, despite (or because of) its anthemic qualities. There’s even a smattering of ska influence popping up on “Tailin’ Love”, and ‘70s cock rock swagger on “Automatic Pilot”—the a- and b-sides of a Stiff Records 7” added onto this release—to cap things off. There’s not really a moment at which anything on Dirty Looks stands out as brilliant, but at the same time, it’s simple rock and roll fun from an era where that was enough to sell records.
This reissue edition also includes four bonus tracks of previously unreleased live tracks recorded on the Son of Stiff Tour. Here, the punk side of the band really shows up. On both the live version of “They Got Me Covered” and the arch cover of “Love Comes in Spurts”, drummer Peter Parker bangs away in fills and rolls that are more aggressive than the album fare. “The Girl” is tense and brooding, while their version of “Stepping Stone” is a mess of organs, guitars, and sneering attitude. Though this is scant record to make a judgment by, it’s unsurprising that Dirty Looks fit well onto a bill of brash Stiff Records talent on the road.
The ill-fated follow-up album, Turn It Up, certainly tinkers with the formula enough to be noticeable, although why Epic remained so dissatisfied as to deny it a stateside release seems curious. With the edges sanded away in mixing and remixing, Turn It Up loses some of the scrappy energy of Dirty Looks, but there’s certainly the material here to have a middling follow-up be passable. The story goes that Epic was trying to push Dirty Looks into a more mainstream power pop sound, and the remixed version here tones down the guitar buzz and clatter for a thinner, cleaner production, even going so far as to strip out the rough harmonica accompaniment that Barnes had recorded for some of the songs. The watered-down production is evident when playing the discs back to back—especially the tame, nearly-vacant tone of Barnes’s guitar work—but there are still some tracks here that capture attention.
“Carrie” manages to establish a real sense of mood and harmony, with Barnes turning in a performance that oddly sounds a bit like Ben Folds. “Do We Need It” obviously suffers from the over-production, but it’s got the elements of a peppy New Wave single in place, while “Animal” might have been a more guttural rocker if left roughened up (and had the one-line lyric stripped out). The title track was the obviously hoped-for single, and you can hear the potential despite how obviously the guitar was dully submerged, with the song winding up feeling both half-finished and smoothed over. “Hit List” actually reverses the formula, flourishing for a few seconds with a great guitar scorch, but feeling underdeveloped rhythmically and vocally. And while hindsight makes “Time Is Up” and “It Was” sound derivative, the fact is that they were definitely of their time.
Ultimately, there’s nothing on Turn It Up to make the decision to shelve the record in the States condemnable, but there’s definitely enough material to give Dirty Looks the benefit of the doubt and wish for the unedited version the band intended to deliver. Whether or not it’s lamentable that it unraveled the band is hard to say. But as a retrospective, the “complete Stiff years” of Dirty Looks makes for an interesting listen. On the one hand, there’s the fact that this music is more or less forgotten in the 21st century, and even while you know it comes from a vaulted past, most will hear it with fresh ears. This adds to the other, more comparative element: call it production values, or the accrual of sonic textures in rock music over time, but there’re something all the more genuine about this Dirty Looks collection than there is in the retro retread bands who’ve scavenged this terrain in the past few years. The ugly specter of authenticity threatens to rear its head, but it’s really a moot point. Dirty Looks was finished before most of today’s crop could hold guitars, and while Dirty Looks was by no means bland, there are bands in today’s scene who are simply better songwriters. What the comparisons do imply, however, is that today’s young rebels might do well to study classic power pop as a means of expanding their vocabularies a bit into the future.
Still, this reissue isn’t intended to be academic. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the role of Stiff Records in shaping the music scene at the dawn of the ‘80s. In spite of this finely presented collection, Dirty Looks will probably not advance beyond footnote status, and it’s doubtful that this double-disc set will influence any kind of revival crop. But for those fans of the era who still hold by the originals, there’s a lasting charm to Dirty Looks that will be a pleasant, if fairly innocuous, addition to your collection. It can’t be justified as a “must have,” but if you carry a torch for power pop or are simply looking for a bit of fun, it’s a decent option.
// Notes from the Road
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